FAIRFIELD — With 60 percent of the season complete, the Fairfield Warde baseball team was in need of a reboot, seemingly unable to gain any traction.
The Mustangs started the season 0-2 and lost four of their first five games. A three-game winning streak was followed by four straight losses.
“We always had the talent at the beginning,” said Mustangs catcher Finn Mobley. We always had one part off. Either we had our pitching off or hitting off.”
There was a brief team meeting in which Warde coach Brett Conner reinforced that the problem wasn’t a lack of talent but an absence of focus.
The Mustangs regrouped and this afternoon rode a strong pitching performance to what once seemed an improbable berth in the FCIAC Tournament. Three pitchers combined on a four-hitter to carry them to a 2-1 win over Ridgefield.
I’m really proud of them,” Conner said. “Happy for the seniors. They are outstanding leaders. We’ve had some great leaders in the past and these guys are just simply outstanding. Their leadership is just second to none.”
Warde (10-10, 9-7 FCIAC) closed out the regular season 6-2, with three straight wins. It will be either the seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs and open on Saturday either at Staples or town rival Fairfield Ludlowe.
“These past few games we’ve been throwing well, we’ve been making our plays in the field and we’ve been coming up with clutch hits, and that’s the recipe right there,” Mobley said.
Improved pitching has been the catalyst for the Mustangs’ climb up the standings.
“That was our struggle at the beginning of the season,” Conner said. “We were not dictating good tempo on the pitching side of things. It ended up putting the defense asleep, and then they would make mistakes. Our hitting has always been good throughout the season but we were walking between five to 12 guys a game. It is hard to win baseball games that way. As of late we’ve finally figured it out.”
In many respects today was a microcosm of the season, with the pitching getting better as the game went on. Brett Lauterbach got the start for the Mustangs and walked four over three innings. But he gave up just one hit, struck out three and did not allow a run.
Anthony Espinoza came in and walked two and gave up a hit over 2/3 of an inning. Alex Wiggetman entered and allowed a late run to get the win. He gave up two hits and struck out four.
“Wiggetman is a first-year varsity guy,” Conner said. “He’s a junior, throws strikes, pounds the zone and is able to command his off-speed, which is a big plus to have with varsity baseball. And he creates positive energy for us.”
The loss eliminated Ridgefield (11-8, 7-8) from playoff contention. The Tigers tied for the regular season title a year ago, was the Class LL runner-up and at one point last month was No. 1 in the state. But a hitting slump has them now mired in a three-game losing streak. They have lost five of their last six.
Paul Fabbri, the Tigers’ coach, is on administrative leave for unspecified reasons for the second time this season. Interim coach Mike Scarlett declined to talk about the game afterward.
Ridgefield has left little margin of error for its pitchers. The Tigers started their ace, Matt DeLuca, and while he did not have his customary command, walking three over four innings, he yielded just two runs.
Warde took a 1-0 lead in the third when Declan O’Hara and Ben Steele reached on bunt singles and O’Hara eventually scored on a wild pitch.
In the fourth Austin Stewart hit a leadoff single and scored on Mobley’s base hit to give Warde a 2-0 lead.
The Tigers were unable to find a spark until Johnny Briody beat out a bunt to start the seventh. He scored on Joe Pastore’s two-out single, but Wiggetman ended the game with a strikeout.
“We knew it was going to be a grind the entire seven innings but they did a great job throwing strikes when we needed to the most,” Conner said. “We executed in situations we needed to. We knew DeLuca would keep it a low scoring game. He’s a heck of a pitcher. We scratched out what we needed to scratch out and the pitching and defense took care of itself.”
Now the Mustangs will wait until tomorrow to find out where they will travel for their quarterfinal game.
“We had a rough start and we really had to come together at the end there and won our last three and got the job done,” Mobley said. “We’re in FCIACs.”